From Reagan to Obama: Meet the White House photographer to two US Presidents

Pete Souza chats about moving from film to digital, offline to Instagram, and his thoughts on the current POTUS.

Pete Souza was the official White House photographer between 2009 and 2017, during the two-term Barack Obama presidency. He’s known as the guy who took that photo of Obama bending so a little boy could touch his hair; of the Obamas leaning into each other in the elevator on the day of the Inaugural Ball; of the American commander-in-chief pretending to be thrown backwards by a kid visiting on Halloween dressed as a tiny Spiderman.

What many people don’t know is that this was Souza’s second assignment at the White House. In the 1980s, Souza, now 64, was also an official photographer of the Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

“President Obama gave me incredible access to make very intimate photographs, so people have gravitated towards those,” Souza says. “Reagan was in his 70s and very formal. Obama was 30 years younger, had a young family and was seemingly always on the move.”

The world was a vastly different place too, the second time around. Souza was now shooting in digital format and being encouraged to post his photographs on social media platforms. This turned him into an online sensation too, and gave America, and the world at large, a glimpse into the inner workings of the Oval Office — from swag to ceremony, celebrations to Seal 6 hits.

It helped that Souza has always had an eye for the little moments behind the scenes — fist bumps, hugs and brief conversations exchanged at back entrances made you feel you were there; almost where you shouldn’t have been. Last week, he visited India to give a talk and conduct a masterclass at the PEP Photo Summit in Hyderabad. Excerpts from an interview…

* What were the biggest differences between shooting the Reagan and the Obama years?

During the Reagan administration, we shot everything on film, so the processing was quite slow in terms of looking at pictures. During the Obama administration, we shot everything on digital files, so the processing was as fast as you wanted it to be.

Of course, the challenge with the digital files is storage. We were not allowed, by law, to delete any files, so all 1.9 million of the photographs I made are now at the National Archives.

Because of the technology and the explosion of social media, people were more familiar with my Obama photographs. But this was also because President Obama gave me incredible access to make very intimate photographs, so people have gravitated towards those. Reagan was in his 70s and very formal. Obama was 30 years younger, had a young family and was seemingly always on the move.

* Did you always know when an image would be a hit?

I didn’t really concern myself with this. I tried to make good photographs every day.

* What was the most surprising thing you experienced or learnt from your years as an official White House photographer?

Probably that there are a lot of good people in our government that are trying to do the right thing for the American people. That’s what is so disturbing to me about the current president; everything he does is about himself and his dwindling base. And it is so disturbing that he continually lies to the American people.

* What do you think of the current obsession with image and with capturing the moment?

Photography and images are the universal language. That’s a good thing.

* How do you think the world will look back on the age of Instagram and Snapchat?

Instagram is a powerful tool for image-makers. It really connects photographers from all walks of life… I’ve never used Snapchat and don’t know anything about it.

* What kind of projects keeps you busy these days?

I’m doing a lot of speaking and my producing and promoting my two books [Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents] have kept me quite busy. I’ve also managed to do a few new photography assignments. And I have some exciting projects underway but can’t yet share details.